Examining the alt-right’s ideological and historical origins, its internal divisions and what to expect from it now.
Tanya Gersh woke up the morning of December 16, 2016, unaware of the storm that was about to hit her inbox, mailbox, social media accounts and voicemail.
Gunshots rang out on her answering machine.
A wave of anti-Semitic and violent messages flooded her inbox.
“Death to Tanya,” read one of them.
“Rat-faced criminals who play with fire tend to get thrown in the oven,” threatened another.
Similar comments appeared on her social media feeds. “Hickory dickory dock, the k*ke ran up the clock. The clock struck three and the internet Nazi trolls gassed the rest of them,” one user tweeted at her.
In total, Gersh, her husband and 12-year-old son received more than 700 messages of harassment, according to court documents.
Gersh, a Jewish real estate agent from Montana, had been the target of a coordinated harassment and intimidation campaign, spearheaded by Andrew Anglin, a blogger who the runs the country’s most widely visited neo-Nazi website.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says Anglin’s Daily Stormer – a blog that includes sections such as “The Jewish Problem” and “Race War” – receives more than 400,000 views a month.
In April, the SPLC, along with a co-counsel in Montana, filed a suit on behalf of Gersh against Anglin, who it says is liable for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violating Montana’s anti-intimidation act.
In response, Anglin hired Marc Randazza, one of the country’s leading free speech lawyers.
Analysts and experts say the case could set a precedent for the way courts draw a line between free speech and online harassment.
David Dinielli, SPLC’s attorney on the case, says the wave of harassment triggered by Anglin is a part of an ongoing shift in the way people “terrorise” others.
“In the past, they would have burned a cross in the lawn,” he tells Al Jazeera. “Now they’re doing it from behind a keyboard.”
Property and protests
Gersh’s nightmare started after local community members in her hometown of Whitefish, Montana, approached her with concerns about Richard Spencer, a white supremacist and leading figure in the alt-right movement.
Anglin has been a vocal supporter of the alt-right, a loose-knit coalition of far-right populists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
In the past, they would have burned a cross in the lawn. Now they're doing it from behind a keyboard.
After Donald Trump won the US elections in November, videos of Spencer evoking German phrases associated with the Nazi regime at a conference in Washington, DC, went viral.
“Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory,” he bellowed as several members of the crowd rose to their feet and made fascist salutes.
Because Spencer’s mother, Sherry, owned property in Whitefish, some locals intended to protest outside the building.
According to the suit, Spencer authored a blog post that accused Gersh of extortion, saying that the estate agent had pressured his mother to sell her property or face a wave of protests and negative media attention.
Gersh, however, claims she had notified tenants of Spencer’s property of the protests, leading one of them to suggest she speak with Sherry Spencer.
After Spencer sought out her advice, Gersh recommended Spencer sell the property, disavow her son’s views and donate the profits to human rights groups in order to alleviate local concerns. Spencer then hired Gersh, but shortly after decided to sell the property independently, the complaint says.
An ‘old-fashioned Troll Storm’
Spencer’s blog post appears to have prompted Anglin to take to his website, urging readers: “Jews targeting Richard Spencer’s mother for harassment and extortion – TAKE ACTION!”
In the first of dozens of articles and comments, Anglin encouraged his readers to “hit em up” in an “old-fashioned Troll Storm”.
He provided Gersh’s phone number, address, social media profiles and email accounts. He also gave contact information for Gersh’s husband and other acquaintances, and linked to the Twitter account of Gersh’s 12-year-old son.
In the months that followed, Gersh’s inbox, voicemail and mailbox become inundated with death threats, harassment and hate messages.
A tirade of insults inundated phone calls to Gersh’s home. “F*ck you, you stupid Jew,” one said.
Another caller said: “Listen here you f*cking Jew. You had better back off of Richard Spencer’s mom. Everybody is watching you.”
Others tweeted at her with memes about suicide, such as: “Are you going to take yourself out of the equation? #JustDoIt.”
Her son received a number of messages on Twitter. One read: “psst kid, there’s a free Xbox One inside this oven,” and included an image of an oven.
Anglin reiterated his call several times in a series of articles, often adding new contact details of those associated with Gersh.
On at least two occasions, Anglin included images of Gersh and her son superimposed on photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp and a Nazi propaganda poster.
‘More than trolling’
Because Anglin hired a prominent First Amendment lawyer, many commentators have placed an emphasis on the concept of free speech in discussing its use by hate groups to defend their actions.
Henry Giroux, author of America at War with Itself and dozens of books on politics and education, says the current public discussion over whether racist incitement should be protected by the constitutional right to free speech “speaks to [the] demise of the public discourse”.
“For the right, ‘free speech’ is basically [a] way to legitimise hate speech,” he tells Al Jazeera, arguing that critics need to stand up for freedom of expression while putting forward clear and consistent principles that make no space for hate speech and incitement.
I think there is this sort of conflation in the public discourse that trolling and hate speech are protected, and that's not what we're talking about here. People often say it's just trolling; it's much more than that.
Yet Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor who advised the SPLC on the case, argues the lawsuit is not about hate speech.
Citron, who focuses on cyber-harassment, said Gersh’s suit is about “reputation-ruining lies” and the “solicitation of harassment”, placing it outside the scope of the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Among the few exceptions to the rule are incitement to violence, defamation and threats of violence.
Arguing that Anglin’s posts constitute “extreme, outrageous behaviour”, Citron tells Al Jazeera that his comments are not protected under the First Amendment, citing Gersh’s emotional and physical trauma and the potential damage that Anglin’s claims could inflict on her career.
“I think there is this sort of conflation in the public discourse that trolling and hate speech are protected, and that’s not what we’re talking about here,” she says. “People often say it’s just trolling; it’s much more than that.”
Randazza, Anglin’s free speech lawyer, was unavailable to provide comment to Al Jazeera at the time of publication.
‘The terror was real’
The SPLC complaint says that as a result of the harassment Gersh endured severe emotional and physical distress, weight gain, joint pain, hair loss and other maladies.
It states that Gersh “had panic attacks, goes to bed in tears, wakes up crying, startles easily”.
She “received medical treatment … feels anxiety and discomfort in crowded places, has had trouble leaving her home, and fears answering her phone”.
Laura Beth Nielsen, a sociologist and lawyer who teaches at Northwestern University and the American Bar Foundation, says Gersh’s suit raises speech-related questions that US courts have yet to fully answer.
“Threat has always been illegal,” Nielsen tells Al Jazeera. “The question here, though, is whether the courts are going to buy the argument that unleashing trolls is a genuine threat and genuine infliction of emotional distress.”
Explaining that the court will have to determine whether the harm outweighed the damage resulting from restricting speech, Nielson says new research suggests the way society understands the concept of free speech may be changing.
“We’re starting to have quite a bit more social science and research about the harms of being targeted by hate speech,” she says, pointing to cases in which the target of online harassment committed suicide.
“There’s a growing group of young people who have seen first-hand the harm that can happen when internet trolling goes crazy,” Nielson says, arguing that “we’re consistently asking already-disadvantaged members of society to bear [the] burdens for ‘the great American ideal’ that we have.”
For Gersh and her family, the case against Anglin may have a long road ahead. At the time of publication, the SPLC had still been unable to serve Anglin with the lawsuit because his whereabouts remained unknown.
Attorney Dinielli says that the group is confident that “a jury will find that this conduct is beyond any bounds of acceptability in a civilised society”.
“There was a night when [Gersh] returned home and her husband considered if they needed to flee in the middle of the night because they’re Jewish,” he recalls. “There’s no doubt that the terror was real.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_
Follow Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath on Twitter: @ElleDubG